chapter  8
Folk devils reconsidered Mary deYoung
Pages 16

For nearly four decades, sociological and criminological scholarship on moral panics has paid homage to the groundbreaking works of Stanley Cohen (1972) and Stuart Hall et al. (1978). Their classic investigations into the excessive reactions of moral entrepreneurs, the media, and control culture to particular moral transgressions not only inaugurated moral panic studies, but also insisted that folk devils are key elements of it. The folk devils of Cohen’s analysis were, of course, the eponymous Mods and

Rockers: the factions of two youth subcultures in Great Britain in the 1960s. The former were middle class and sang-froid; the latter, lumpen and politically reactionary. The differences between them – from attitude and aspiration, to preferred music and mode of transportation – were stark as far as the factions’ insiders were concerned, of no great interest at first to outsiders, and ignored completely when they were discursively transformed into folk devils after their altercation on the streets of the English seaside resort of Clacton-on-Sea over the rainy Easter weekend of 1964. Their clash may have resulted in more than £500 in property damage and 100

arrests, but for Cohen it was their discursive makeover that was of more interest. They were stereotypically represented as youth hooligans by the media and by what he refers to as the ‘right-thinking’ people who publicly and politically reacted to their altercation, and made the subject of jeremiads by those same moral entrepreneurs who warned of the threats posed to the moral and social order by such dissolute youth; a ‘full scale demonology and hagiology’ was constructed (Cohen 1972: 44). The Mods and the Rockers thus achieved a certain pride of place in the ‘gallery of contemporary folk devils’ (p. 44). Muggers were added to that gallery by Hall et al. in their analysis of another British

moral panic over violent street criminals. Focusing on the media’s role in constructing folk devils, they lay out the complex process of news making. They argue that the media are dependent upon, rather than independent from, what they refer to as the

‘primary definers,’ that is, those individuals and groups with the authority and/or expertise to set out the terms of the debate over a social issue. In this moral panic, the primary definers were representatives of the state, the police, and politicians whose warnings about street crime were then translated by the media into a ‘public idiom’ that gave a discursive reality to the inchoate fears of the public. In a discursive loop, the public’s reactions to the reporting were then fed back to the primary definers as indicators of public opinion, thus stoking the intensity of their rhetoric and repressive reactions. Central to all of this is the ‘signification spiral.’ Hall et al. coined the term to

describe the process by which a specific social anxiety is mapped onto a matrix of other social anxieties by media reportage and the rhetoric of representatives of the state. As these disparate anxieties converge, the ‘threat-potential’ amplifies and the need to contain it becomes urgent. It is here that the folk devil is constructed out of the strands of converging social anxieties to stand in proxy for the threat potential. Thus the folk devils of this moral panic were not muggers left lurking in the dark shadows of imagination; rather, they were embodied in the persons of young, urban, black males – symbols of the converging social anxieties of the era about alienated youth, urban decay, and strained race relations. Projected across ‘thresholds’ of social tolerance by sensationalist reportage, they were depicted not just as threats, but as violent threats, thus legitimating coercive state intervention. Hall et al. do not so much recapitulate Cohen’s model of moral panics as renovate

it. While the theoretical and analytical differences between the two models have been sharply dissected by others (Critcher 2003; Jones 1997; Thompson 1998), what is of concern here is the pre-eminent role of the folk devil in these pioneering works. In both, they had a certain liminal status before they were nominated as folk devils of the moral panics. Cohen’s Mods and Rockers, relatively affluent, mobile, insouciant, were ‘imposters, reading the lines which everyone knew belonged to some other groups’ (Cohen 1972: 195). Not securely located within the in-group, or as Cohen remarks, ‘not quite in their places’ (p. 195), they threatened prevailing norms and blurred the moral boundary between conventional and deviant society. The muggers of Hall et al. were inarguably deviant and had been the targets of criminal justice intervention well before they were nominated as the folk devils of the moral panic. While this closer look at the folk devils reveals a fundamental difference between the two pioneering works – for Cohen, deviant action was followed by social reaction, yet for Hall et al. intervention revealed the deviant action which set off social reaction – the critical point is that the folk devils of each were socially marginalized before they ever were crafted into folk devils. Indeed, there is a morally sinister air about the folk devils of subsequent moral

panic analyses influenced by Cohen and Hall et al. There are the coarse women of the witch-hunts (Ben-Yehuda 1980); the indolent dole scroungers and feckless single mothers of the Welfare State panics (Ortiz and Briggs 2003; Shepard 2007); the rebellious recreational users, ‘heroin chic’ popular culture icons, antisocial addicts, and pushers of the drug crusades (Armstrong 2007; Denham 2008; Goode 1990; Hier 2002a); the dangerous working class and the alienated middle-class males of the crime

and bullying scares (Hay 1995; Hoeri 2002; Schinkel 2008); the sleazy pornographers, child molesters, and cyber-predators of the stranger-danger alarms (Critcher 2002; Ost 2002; Sandywell 2006); and the shadowy foreigners of the asylum-seeking, illegal immigration, and terrorism scares (Altheide, 2006; Rothe and Muzzatti, 2004). All folk devils, to one degree or another, were marginalized, gendered, stigmatized, racialized, and/or criminalized as cultural strangers well before they even were nominated and then constructed into the moral panics’ folk devils. The very notion of socially marginalized folk devils, powerless victims of the

bloated rhetoric of moral entrepreneurs and the stereotypical representations of the media, is so securely ensconced in moral panic analyses inspired by Cohen and Hall et al. that it has had all of the tranquility of an axiom. But for some quite recent scholars, the axiom is far from tranquil. Why is this so? The general answer can be contextualized within the discussion

that has been ongoing for some time, over re-theorizing the concept of moral panic by linking it to moral regulation and risk theory, two salient themes in contemporary sociological, criminological, and cultural theory. While there is disagreement about how those linkages should be forged, and quite frankly whether they should be at all, the very prospect of doing so is intriguing for the purposes of this chapter because it problematizes folk devils. It does so in the following ways. If, on the one hand, moral panics are considered

extreme and rare instances of ‘risk discourse within a process of moral regulation’ (Critcher 2009: 17), then they invariably will have embodied folk devils, most likely already socially marginalized, whose putative threat to the moral order requires immediate social control. This reconceptualization retains not only much of the classic notion of moral panics à la Cohen and Hall et al., but also much of the temptation to continue to under-theorize folk devils as social actors. If, on the other hand, moral panics are considered much more common instances of volatile eruptions of the moralization in everyday life, ‘transmitted through configurations of grievance and risk’ (Hier 2008: 171), then these folk devils really do become problematical. They may have to be ‘foraged for,’ as Ungar (2001: 281) so nicely puts it, and if found they may be not socially marginalized, and far from powerless. And they may not exist at all, at least not in an embodied form, replaced, instead, by issues such as health concerns that not only have apologists and adversaries, but that also pose no tangible threat to the moral order, and require more self-regulation than social control (Critcher 2009). Regardless of the reconceptualization, and whether outside the social margins or

within, embodied or not, folk devils are being problematized by recent efforts to revise moral panics. In this chapter, I reconsider folk devils in light of revisionist efforts. For the purposes of clarity, not to mention symmetry, I will use the terms ‘conventional’ and ‘modern’ to tag the two opposing re-conceptualizations previously discussed; the folk devils of each will be tagged that way as well. My analysis uses social marginality as the primary variable, and searches for the ways and means not only by which ‘conventional’ and ‘modern’ folk devils are constructed, but also by which they might be theorized as social actors who use what variously may be

referred to as their personal power, agency, social capital, or resource mobilization capacity to influence the claims, course, and consequences of moral panics. This analysis takes to heart Young’s (2007) reminder that moral panics always are

collective processes, and should be analyzed in such a way that a ‘sense of energy and intensity of this happening and that’ (p. 56) is captured. To that end, I will rely on a variety of moral panic case studies to advance my own analysis.